Amazon Fire TV review
When we first encountered the Amazon Fire TV and wrote our original review, it was a US product only. Since then though it has made it onto the UK market too and, with hindsight and time on its side, the UK version has implemented some of the things missing on its debut launch.
In addition, while the American release initially came out with restricted app availability, there have been a number of key developments in that area. And the the version for the UK also has some services specific to the region.
That's why we've felt it necessary to revisit our Fire TV review and introduce a new perspective on a technology that British customers can now enjoy too.
Much of what we wrote before is still relevant and applies to the set-top-box on both sides of the pond, but now you can get a definitive opinion of what we think of the Amazon Fire TV.
Amazon is an interesting company. It's an online retail giant. It's an eBook king. It wants to be a bit of everything. And while its hardware ambitions were limited to Kindle eBook readers in the past, it is rapidly expanding its portfolio in devices too. The Fire TV is the latest addition to an ever increasing line-up.
There's a lot going on with Fire TV. The company's first foray into the set-top box market is more than just that: it also happens to be a shot at the console market, and although its Apple TV-rivalling talents are of interest, we were also keenly interested in seeing how that dual-tongued approach worked out.
We first lived with the Fire TV in the US for a while before passing judgement, but have now spent some time with the UK box too so believe we have a rounded view of Amazon's strategy with the box. It's similar to Apple's with its connected device and Google's with its forthcoming Nexus Player, but can it possibly compete with such heavyweights in the hardware field?
First thing's first: You need an Amazon account to access anything on the Amazon Fire TV. You also need an internet connection (either wireless or wired).
The Amazon Fire TV is compatible with most high-definition televisions via HDMI, although, annoyingly, an HDMI cable is not included in the box so you'll need to grab one from something else or buy a lead separately. Amazon only provides the actual set-top box as well as a power cord and a wireless remote with two AAA batteries - the Fire Game Controller shown in our lead picture is sold separately, priced $40 in the States, £35 in the UK.
Once you get everything hooked up and online, Amazon will encourage you to sign up for Amazon Prime Instant. However, this is not required - so feel free to play around as an average Amazon customer before agreeing to an annual subscription fee. The set-top box will then search for its compatible remote and a Wi-Fi connection. If all that is in order, Amazon will start piping the latest software update to the box.
The next step features a brief animated video that will automatically play (with a British accent on the UK version). It tries to help even the most beginner of streaming users learn their way around a set-top box. It gives a brief overview of the Fire TV's interface and the many types of things you could buy, download, play, or stream. After the video concludes, you are free to set up any parental controls - such as a PIN to stop the kids from accidentally (or purposefully) running up your bill - and then browse away.
The Fire TV is a thin square box that's finished in matte black. All its ports - power, HDMI, optical audio, Ethernet, and USB - are positioned to its rear, while a glossy Amazon logo graces the top.
The accompanied rounded remote is suitably tiny and mostly matte black, bar for glossy buttons. As for the Fire Game Controller, should you buy one as an extra, it has a layout similar to an OnLive controller and an angular and matte-black design with glossy controls.
You likely won't have to rearrange your AV stack or the oodles of hardware beneath your television just to use the Fire TV, because it's small enough to fit in and looks slick. Nothing is big or bulky - and everything has a rather cutting-edge and sleek appearance that'll surely complement most home cinema setups.
Our only warning: it's a devil of a fingerprint magnet, especially on the top, which can drive you mad. Especially if you need to take photos of it.
After you've gone through the introductory process of getting started with your Fire TV, you will see a main screen every time you turn on the set-top box. The main screen's user-interface is very Kindle Fire-esque and has categories on the left-hand side for Search, Home, Movies, TV, Watchlist, Video Library, Games, Apps, Music, Photos, Settings, and FreeTime for the US. The FreeTime service, which can also be found on the latest Amazon Fire tablets, is sadly lacking on the UK version. A Prime Video menu option is also available for subscribers.
We naturally navigated to Home, Movies, Games, and Apps during our testing as that best matches our interests.
Starting with Home, it allows you review content recommendations and recent activity. Movies does what you would expect: provides access to the movie section on the Amazon Instant Video store. If you are an Amazon Prime member, you can watch most Prime Instant Video movies at no extra cost. All Prime Instant content is earmarked by a little flag and is highlighted in a top bar in each of the dedicated sections. Similarly, TV provides access to the TV section on the Amazon Instant Video store and features premium content for Prime members.
The Watchlist is a list of the movies and TV shows you have saved for later, naturally, whereas the Video Library includes all of your Cloud Drive-stored content you have purchased or are currently renting. As for the Games and Apps sections on the main screen - where you can respectively find, buy, and play games or apps from the Amazon Appstore - we'll touch on those in more detail later.
Photos and Settings are both self-explanatory: Photos gives access to your photos and videos stored in the Amazon Cloud Drive and you can also start a photo slideshow with images or even set individual pics as screen savers. Settings is the portal to view and manage your Amazon Fire TV apps, controllers, parental controls, Internet connection, and more.
Going back to content, you'll notice that clicking on a movie or TV episode title brings up an option to view the trailer (in most instances) - or you can just rent, buy, or stream right away. The Fire TV is also choc-full of cool features for content. It includes access to Amazon's X-ray service, for instance, which allows users to pull up IMDB info within a video stream (like an actor's name and credit history). The Fire TV also includes access to Amazon's new music service, Prime Music, in the States. The UK music access at the moment is limited to tracks purchased on Amazon, either as MP3s or have been added to your Cloud Drive because of autorip.
Everything is pretty straightforward. We found the interface simple to navigate and use for the most part. Nothing lagged or froze and, it must be said, it moved along quicker and more smoothly than on many rivals - Roku and Apple TV included.
While time has seen a lot more supported apps arrive, there are still a limited amount that work with the Fire TV in comparison to the wealth of software available for Amazon's tablets. It is an Android-based machine though, so it's only a matter of time before more become available. Especially as the device has now had a wider release.
A few of the more notable apps currently available include Hulu Plus, Watch ESPN, Crackle, Bloomberg TV, Pandora, Vevo and iHeart Radio for the US, BBC iPlayer, Demand 5, BBC News, and BBC Sport for the UK. These apps look and function much like their counterparts found on the Apple TV or Roku, as Amazon allows each provider to design and develop their own app interface.
There are some notable absences, such as NOW TV in Britain, but several major ones are available in both regions, including Netflix, Spotify, Flixster and Plex, so there's plenty to choose from.
The selection is nowhere near as extensive as Roku's, but is considerably more varied and flexible than Apple TV's.
FreeTime is the most family-friendly feature within Fire TV and the fact it hasn't been implemented on the UK version is bemusing. It's a dedicated spot for children and looks completely different from the main screen interface. It's also something we think British parents would love to see.
Similar to the FreeTime feature that comes with Amazon's line of Fire tablets, FreeTime will allow parents to set-up profiles for up to four children. The profiles will have a blue background, profile name, avatar, and so forth. Amazon described this design as "kid friendly." Parents can "whitelist" content into FreeTime and designate time limits, while children can't get out of their FreeTime area without entering a parent-set password. Nifty, right?
Amazon said it would also offer FreeTime Unlimited, a package deal that includes parental controls and premium content like books, games, educational apps, movies, and TV shows from companies like Disney and Nickelodeon designed for young kids. Perhaps that's why it is yet to make it outside the US then, the subscription service takes a little longer to set-up and market.
Games and the Fire Game Controller
Although there aren't that many games available, even with the UK launch, we suspect that the wider roll out will prompt developers to add Fire TV control codes.
We found ourselves playing Badland and Dead Trigger 2 the most. They are both great fun to play, with the first being able to be controlled with just the included remote control. The latter game also looked great on the big screen, almost as good as a full console game, so there's potential there.
Amazon has also promised support for thousands of games from big publishers including Disney Interactive, EA, Halfbrick and more. And it has an in-house gaming arm called Amazon Games Studios developing original Amazon games. The first game, called SEV Zero, is already out. It's a tower-defence shooter with a multi-player mode. We thought SEV Zero looked pretty cool.
All video games work with a Bluetooth-enabled game controller, Amazon's own Fire Game Controller which we found very responsive and easy to use - just like a controller should be. You can also hook up a third-party Bluetooth game controller, the sort that would normally work with an Android device, so that might save you some pennies if you already have one lying around.
Search and the remote
The potentially coolest feature within Fire TV is voice search, which requires the Fire TV remote to operate. The remote has a built-in mic, and you can use that mic to voice-sift through Prime Instant Video and several apps. Just press and hold the search button on the Fire TV remote, speak a query, and Amazon will serve up related results. You can voice search for an actor's name or titles and genres to browse over 200,000 movies available on Fire TV.
Voice search worked impressively fast whenever we looked for a specific movie too. It's an effective way to find movies and shows but, unfortunately, the feature only supports a few services. For example, on the UK version, when you press the voice search button when in Netflix and say something like "House of Cards" it pulls you back out to the main Amazon system and presents results that are on Amazon's own Instant Video, not the content in the Netflix app. The Instant Video versions also cost money to buy, so that can be confusing to a general user.
Voice control is therefore great on the main menu and when you need to search for something in your Prime library or an app, but is limited.
In specifications terms, the Fire TV is a powerful streaming box, with its quad-core processor, 2GB of RAM, and a dedicated GPU. In fact, Amazon claimed the Fire TV is three times more powerful than a Roku, Chromecast, and Apple TV. Or as powerful as all three combined we suppose. You should therefore have no issues when voice browsing, playing videos, and gaming in 1080p - we certainly didn't.
READ: Google Chromecast review
Price and availability
Americans can purchase an Amazon Fire TV and remote for $99, while it is available in the UK for £79.
That doesn't include the Prime membership which we feel, in the UK at least, is essential to get the most from your box. That costs an additional £79, but as well as provide access to the swathe of TV and film content on Prime Instant Video, it offers free delivery on most Amazon.co.uk items and access to the Kindle Lenders Library.
We rather liked Amazon Fire TV both sides of the pond. However, it has a lot of very capable competition too. And that will only increase when Google releases its similarly Android-based Nexus Player.
Part of its problem is that, unlike some of those rivals, it doesn't offer much beyond the content delivery. For example, with the Apple TV you can use Airplay to watch or listen to content sent from an iPhone or iPad's screen to a TV, and the same rings true with the Google Chromecast. Amazon's Fire TV is more limited. It does offer the option of "flinging" a video from a Fire tablet to the box or using Miracast to mirror a compatible display on the big screen (an option hidden in the settings), but it's a curtailed feature in comparison.
The gaming side is good, but the Nexus Player will do that too, and possibly more effectively considering it will be based on Android 5.0 Lollipop rather than customised Fire OS on top of Android. And Roku has some of that functionality as well in its Roku 3 box.
That's not to say that the Fire TV is lacking though, far from it. It is superfast in operation and the menu system is clean and easy to navigate. We would have liked to see FreeTime on its UK launch, but we're pleased to find pretty much everything else implemented.
As a device, we can see it sitting in our AV setup, but that's because we have an Amazon Prime subscription. And thar's the rub. Without one it is hard to recommend fully - even a £9.99 NOW TV box offers much of the same - but if you are a happy inhabitant of the Amazon ecosystem it really is a no-brainer.